I use alcohol to get past my social anxiety when I have to be friendly and extroverted. But I don’t know how long I can keep doing it.
It’s Alcohol Awareness Month. I am someone who is very aware of alcohol — I have used it to self medicate for anxiety for many years, more so as I’ve gotten older, more introverted and acutely aware of my waning social capital.
Years of having my mental health issues misdiagnosed led me to find my own ways to take care of the twisting in my stomach and the racing in my head. Often, throwing down a few beers makes me feel like I can pretend to be a normal person for a few hours.
I am a social drinker, in that my drinking rate is directly proportional to how uncomfortable I feel in a social situation. A small gathering with close friends finds me only having a beer or two, or often not drinking at all. At a bar where I’m being introduced to new people often, and I feel pressured to perform friendliness and accessibility, and I’ve probably had more like three or four beers. Put me in a situation where I’m in close proximity to an ex who cheated on me and then made it seem like my fault? That’s when I reach for the hard liquor.
Before I was 21, I barely drank at all. Really, it was only when I lived in London at 23 that I began to have a beer more than once or twice a month. Most people, I suppose, learn this in college — but by the time I could take a break from working to go back to school, I was far too serious about it to waste time partying. I joke now that I developed a British liver when I was there, but really I just learned how to manage being drunk in public. In London, where going to the pub was an integral part of not only a casual social life but workplace interactions, I adapted to the cultural norm of dulling my issues through the copious application of alcohol.
Related: Crazy Talk: What Free Mental Health Apps Should I Know About?
It was really only when I returned from the UK I began to see how others looked at me with concern during a night out. I tried sobering up entirely, as many of my friends were doing, but found myself paralyzed with fear, unable to hold light conversations. London had also found me becoming deeply political, and I was no longer a young, naive submissive eager to get laid — I was a jaded feminist killjoy who wanted to discuss serious matters.
I went to a psychiatrist to try and medicate my emotional state that way, trying a few different pills until Klonopin was settled on. I couldn’t decide if potentially getting hooked on that was better or worse than a dependency on alcohol, and I felt frustrated with myself at losing grasp of my former, bubbly, extroverted self.
Eventually, I stopped taking the anti-anxiety medication when I realized that it interacted dangerously with alcohol. I briefly considered not drinking again, but the month I had spent avoiding alcohol also meant I avoided people. I’d make agreements with myself — just beer, or just a certain number of drinks — but as my discomfort increased, so would my alcohol intake.
I’m 33 and I still haven’t really worked out what my alcohol tolerance is. I have probably thrown up from overindulging more in the last three years than I did in my 20s. I know enough about my family’s history of alcoholism to avoid drinking at home, but I still don’t know when to stop before I’ve gone from pleasantly tipsy to sick to my stomach and dizzy.
While I don’t want to follow the path of my mother into a box of wine, I also don’t want to isolate myself from society until I conquer my anxiety. I am painfully aware of the ways that our bootstrapping, meritocracy-obsessed culture ensures that we are worked to the bone, financially insecure so that we don’t challenge the system. As an activist dedicated to challenging that system, I also know I need to keep fighting. One day I hope I have the strength to do it without liquid courage.